Declassified US files shine new light on Argentina’s darkest days
Staggering details of the belligerence, brutality and barbarism of Argentina’s last military dictatorship (1976 - 1983) have been revealed by the latest tranche of declassified documents from the United States government, which were handed over to the national Human Rights Secretariat earlier this week.
The information contained within is vast, new and moving. During those dark days, members of the US government had reported back on the inner workings of the Operation Condor campaign of state terror, the Junta’s plans to “liquidate” international human rights leaders and sent testimonies from high-ranking officials detailing the campaign of repression that had gripped Argentina. The US government’s debates over strategy and how to tackle the human rights abuses underway are laid bare in the files, illustrating just how lives hung in the balance.
In assessments that are chilling to read now, US spies give detailed psychological profiles on some of the most notorious murderers of the dictatorship.
Some files are almost too haunting to read. In a memorandum sent to the State department in July, 1979, then-US ambassador Raúl Castro reports over a lunch he had with General Ramón Camps, in which the latter explains how he enjoys lecturing his conscripts’ parents about why they need to “kill” for the motherland.
“Camps’ explanation to the parents and sons was that the duty of these recruits was not to die for the salvation of their country but to kill for their country,” part of the text reads.
How much the United States government knew of the last military dictatorship’s (1976-1983) actions — before, during and after the time it lead the country — has never been truly exposed. For many years, it has remained a mystery.
The military leaders in Argentina — who oversaw an extermination campaign in the country, murdering thousands of victims who were forcibly disappeared, tortured and executed — naturally had relations with the government in Washington, yet previous US administrations opted not to dig into their archives.
For many victims and their families in Argentina, it seemed the door would remain firmly shut. But hopes were lifted earlier this year. On March 24 — the anniversary of the coup d’état that brought the Junta to power — US President Barack Obama announced, during his first state visit to Argentina, that the White House would begin declassifying documents pertaining to that period. Expectations among human rights activists and family members soared — would the US finally reveal what it had known about the acts committed by the dictatorship? Could the information help shed light on the fate of some of the disappeared?
When the first batch of 1,000 documents was finally released, last August, the pickings were slim. Although there were several previously unknown things revealed, not much new information was discovered. Much of it reinforced facts already known. But in this latest tranche, experts say they’re delighted to find more detailed information.
The intricate inner workings of the Operation Condor campaign, the plans by military dictatorship to assassinate international human rights leaders, the prelude to the Military takeover, the impact of US Embassy’s reports detailing testimonies by victims had on US high-ranking officials — these are just some of the details that emerge from the new batch of 550 documents. US officers drew up psychological profiles of some of the military’s most notorious killers and the geo-political strategising that the government took on to pressure the military on human rights are revealed.
Even the huge edited parts, full of black spaces between paragraphs in the presidential reports, memos and presidential daily briefs included give hints about how much the United States knew about the campaign of state terrorism being carried out at the time.
The second tranche was officially handed over this week on Monday at the ex-ESMA, the former Navy Mechanics School on Libertador Avenue that was used as a clandestine detention centre by the military. Poignantly, US Ambassador to Argentina Noah Mamet handed them over to Human Rights Secretary Claudio Avruj at a memorial service marking the passing of Patricia “Patt” Derian, the campaigner and assistant secretary for human rights and humanitarian affairs who served under the administration of former US president Jimmy Carter.
Over 500 documents of files — full of presidential memos, reports, and daily presidential briefings — were handed over in the second release, including significant files from the CIA (Centre Intelligence Agency), presidential briefing documents from the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and additional records from the Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush presidential libraries.
Activists and human rights specialists have welcomed the new information.
“This is much more substantial. Although there are less documents, there is much more meat to them,” National Security Archive NGO director Carlos Osorio, who is an expert on declassified US documents on the Southern Cone region, told the Herald.
One of the most revealing files is a report on May 9, 1977, to then president Jimmy Carter’s administration, discussing the infamous Operation Condor, an international coordinated campaign of extermination that targeted leftist political opponents of the military governments in the Southern Cone. Although political activists were already known to have been targeted, the released document confirms that in 1977, the CIA was aware of a secret Condor team that was planning to carry out assassinations in different parts of Europe — not only against suspected guerrillas but against human rights activists, including members of Amnesty International.
“Non-terrorists also were reportedly candidates for assassination; Uruguayan opposition politician Wilson Ferreira Aldunate, if he should travel to Europe, and some leaders of Amnesty International were mentioned as targets,” details the May 9, 1977 CIA report.
Former Buenos Aires Herald editor-in-chief Andrew Graham-Yooll, who was a member of Amnesty International, was forced to flee the country during the last military dictatorship after having receiving threats in 1976.
“It’s amazing how they are so daring and reckless, but they are actually forced to stop that operation because French intelligence confronts them... otherwise they would have undertaken the killing,” the NSA’s Osorio said
The US officials highlighted how the Uruguay opposition lawmaker Ferreira Aldunate may have been taken off the hit list, because he had good relations with US congressmen.
In another part of the same CIA document, it is reported that a Condor training course had been held in Buenos Aires and that the military leaders were considering sending an undercover team to London disguised as businessmen to monitor suspicious activity, acts that would have spread the wings of the Condor plan across the world.
It also speaks of the Condor communications system and about how they would use radio, voice and teletype via an open radio channel to keep in touch. And the file confirms that a basic computerised data bank for Operation Condor had been created in Santiago, Chile, where members contribute to lists of known or suspected “terrorists.” Brazil is reported to have agree to provide equipment for “Condortel”, the group’s communications network.
However, many parts between these paragraphs are edited.
Human rights activists and lawyers have long suspected that the United States facilitated communications network for Operation Condor via a communications Centre based in Panama, though the fact has never been confirmed. Tens of thousands of victims are estimated to have been killed as a result of Condor.
One additional revelation shows how the CIA knew what procedures Operation Condor used before undertaking an operation.
“Once a Condor member has declined to participate in an operation, he is excluded from all further details of that particular plan,” states the document.
How a victim’s testimony affected high-ranking US officials
Some of the newly released documents reveal the impact that testimonies from victims had on US officials at their desks in Washington.
One file offers a long, detailed account of the kidnapping and torture suffered by Alfredo Bravo, the former head of the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights.
Bravo told US Embassy officials how he was tortured with an electric cattle prod, witnessed a woman bring raped by military officers, the execution of several prisoners, and explains how he was interrogated over human rights leaders under death threats.
“He was queried regarding (Augusto) Conte-MacDonell’s connection with the Communist Party; Emilio Mignone’s connections with the Montoneros and on the covert political and terrorist affiliations of all these individuals,” states the report.
Mignone and Conte were members of the Permanent Assembly on Human Rights, and would later go on to found the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) human right organisation — with the help of United States experts and funding — in order to prepare for the Inter-American on Human Right Commission’s (IAHCR) visit to Argentina in 1979, during which abuses were documented.
After reading the report, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, then-president Carter’s right-hand man for National Security issues, scribbles on the side. “Powerful, compelling report,” he writes.
Bravo was finally released later that year due in part to the help of US Embassy official Allen “Tex” Harris. He later thanked Harris for helping free him, after he was released.
Inside the investigations
During that time, Harris was in charge of a new area in the US Embassy based on internal affairs and human rights. Much of the documentation declassified in this latest batch of files is based on the information gathered and sent by Harris and other Embassy officials that was sent to the US State department. In one memo, sent to Carter on August, 1979, the US Embassy reports that about 55 people per month had disappeared in 1978, 180 per month in 1977, and 300 per month in 1976.
At that time, however, US officials didn’t have the whole picture. They were uncertain if a significant number of prisoners existed, being held in clandestine detention centres.
The US government believed that there was little reason to think that there were still substantial amounts of them “in process,” as the reports refer to it. But the US government did know that shady undertakings were taking place.
A Memorandum of Conversation declassified in 2004, not from the latest batch of files, detailed a now infamous conversation between former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and former Argentine foreign minister Admiral César Guzzetti that took place in Santiago, Chile in June, 1976.
“If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly. But you should get back quickly to normal procedures,” Kissinger had told the former admiral.
In 1979, it was estimated that there was, at most, a few hundred prisoners in clandestine prisons that still remained. “We monitored the reports of disappearances, arrests, murders, but it wasn’t the whole amount (and) this was used to check with the Argentine military when they said the number of disappearances went down,” Harris explained to the Herald over the phone from Washington DC.
Getting that information to the corresponding high-ranking US government authorities was far from easy. Tex says he had to struggle with the US ambassador at the time, Raúl Castro, to stop him censoring the reports. Much of that information — which Harris struggled to air at the time —was released in this latest round of declassified files.
“I had a major fight then because the US Embassy tried to stop my human rights reports from going through. One time the US ambassador took my messages out of the diplomatic pouch that was to be sent to Washington DC, and told me not to send it. I was really angry when I found out, and put them back in. When it reached Washington DC, it ended up killing a business deal that a company owned by the Navy would have benefitted from,‘ he recalled.
Raúl Castro on Camps
Despite the internal dispute over what type of information should finally be sent to Washington, the then-US ambassador sent some vitally important reports over the situation during the military dictatorship.
In July 1979, for example, he sent a shocking memorandum to the US State Department recalling a lunch he had with Ramón Camps, an infamous repressor and general who was the head of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police during the National Reorganisation Process.
The US ambassador recalls in the declassified cable how Camps got off on telling the parents of conscripts in the last military dictatorship how their sons’ duty was not to die for their country but to “kill” for it.
“In all my seven and half years of dealing with ‘riff-raff’ and criminal elements as a district attorney. I have never seen anyone as potentially dangerous as this person,” Castro concludes at the end of the report.
Camps was later found guilty of hundreds of kidnappings, tortures and homicides, as well as the illegal appropriation of children. He died in 1994, having benefitted from the amnesties granted in the Full Stop and Due Obedience laws.
Prelude to the dictatorship
Though the declassified documents from the Gerald Ford administration in this release are brief, they do demonstrate the inside knowledge the US had about the upcoming coup d’état. In one presidential briefing to Ford it states how the Argentine Army sent an officer to Washington to prepare them for the military takeover.
“The officer is to pass along guidelines for dealing with the US news media regarding events that will follow,” states a presidential daily briefing from February 27, 1976.
This is just weeks before former president Isabel Peron — who succeeded Juan Domingo Perón after his death — was overthrown by the Junta on March 24, 1976. Although much of the document is edited, it shows how the CIA was well informed about inner workings of the Argentine military.
Military funded Peronist party
Another surprising document comes from the end of the military dictatorship in 1983, when democratic elections are around the corner. A presidential daily briefing sent to former president Ronald Reagan states that Argentina’s military leaders were providing political and financial backing to Peronist party candidates in that year’s October elections.
At that time, Peronist presidential candidate Italo Argentino Lúder was running for president against UCR’s centre-leftist candidate Raúl Alfonsín, who eventually won the presidency by a landslide.
Yet when he assumed office he ran into serious problems. In addition to the problems raised by disgruntled military officers that had just lost power and could topple the government at any moment, Alfonsín had purged the ranks of the SIDE intelligence agency. The CIA warns in the report that could be dangerous for the new, fragile democracy that existed in Argentina.
“The various intelligence services would be phased down, redirected and brought under civilian control only very slowly, members of these groups would be a much greater menace unemployed in the street than where they are,” a November, 1983 report from George Bush’s presidential library states. At that moment, Bush was vice-president in the Reagan administration.
The document also notes that while Alfonsín had gained more control over the SIDE, the changes had caused the politician to lack any dependable, non-military, source of intelligence.
Profiling of military repressors
In some of the most intriguing parts of the release, there are also psychological profiles of several of the Junta’s military leaders, which were provided to the Carter administration via reports.
Former Navy admiral Emilio Massera, for example, one of the Junta’s leaders who was in charge of the ESMA clandestine detention centre, was actually viewed positively in a written description in November, 1977.
“Massera, 52, is an intelligent, competent and professional officer. He has a strong, forceful personality, an excellent sense of humour, and an easy and articulate conversation manner.”
The dictatorship’s former economy minister, José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz, was viewed as energetic and at times intense. “He is honest and straightforward. He has an attractive and unassuming manner and is an excellent public speaker,” states the document from February, 1977. Martínez de Hoz was convicted of crimes against humanity in relation to extortion and kidnapping of victims.
On the other hand, dictator Jorge Videla was viewed as sophisticated, urbane, but overly methodical.
“Often referred to as a moralist, Videla is a man of great integrity (the following line is edited). He has correctness, honesty and Puritanism elevated to extreme limits. He loathes corruption and is a deeply religious man.”
The role of the media
Another aspect addressed by the declassified documents is how US officials distinguished between the different positions newspapers had in regards to reporting human rights abuses.
“The prestigious daily La Prensa has joined the Buenos Aires Herald in championing human rights. However, no paper has agreed to publish the Permanent Assembly’s latest list of disappearances,” states a 1979 Memorandum from the Carter administration.
They also noted that there were exceptions that did spark some outlets into action, such as when eight lawyers were kidnapped in Mar del Plata, in an August 25, 1977 memorandum sent to the National Security Advisor.
“It is noteworthy that Argentina’s most important newspaper, La Nación, which has not distinguished itself on behalf of human rights, called unequivocally on July 18 for the Argentine government to protect lawyers from barbarism.”
Negotiations with Communist countries
The files also offer a hint at how history can change. In 1978, with the Carter administration’s economic sanctions hitting the military dictatorship, a “top secret” presidential daily brefing notes how the Junta sought to create stronger ties with Communist countries.
It highlights how the USSR was interested in providing turbines for the country’s Yacretá hydroelectric dam, after the Export-Import Bank had rejected to provide financing due to the human rights situation in the country. However, the US officials didn’t take the threat of the military dictatorship generating closer economic relations with the Communist government seriously.
“The Argentines are obviously posturing to some extent about strengthening relations with Communist nations. Their conservative political bias and their fears regarding potential subversion probably preclude any close diplomatic alignment or the purchase of Soviet military equipment,” the July 19, 1978 presidential briefing states.
The files, cumulatively and individually, shine new light onto the darkest days of Argentina’s history. Human rights activists, citizens, victims and family members alike will eagerly await the new installment from Washington.